When Manipur goes to the polls, there is much for the rest of India to pay attention to.
“Last year, Ibobi and his cabinet decided that they will not allow the Naga Chief Minister to enter the State, but now that the elections have been announced, he no longer has the power to prevent me from coming here and meeting you … But if you let him win again I will not be able to come to Manipur to meet all of you.” That was Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, speaking at an election rally in Manipur's Tamenglong district on January 19. He was addressing a gathering of Manipuri Nagas while campaigning for candidates of the Nagaland People's Front (NPF) that is contesting the Assembly elections for the first time in Manipur.
This public shot at the Manipur Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, has much history. Mr. Rio and Mr. Ibobi are both equally dynamic leaders and have forged serious political reputations. Mr. Rio has been engaged in galvanising support of the Naga population in Manipur and Mr. Ibobi has acquired a reputation for being hard on insurgent groups. Both have become political leaders in their States in challenging times. Nagaland and Manipur are insurgency-hit States and the levels and type of insurgency in both States are deeply connected.
How do we explain Mr. Rio's curious political commentary that has involved calling Mr. Ibobi, a Manipuri Meitei, “an enemy of the Nagas?” And how do we analyse what the electoral consequences of such polarising speech might be.
Manipur has nine districts and 60 Assembly constituencies. Thirty-nine constituencies lie in the Meitei dominated valley, which forms the heart of the Congress' electoral calculus in the State. In the last two decades, forging a majority in the Assembly has proved tough for any political party. And Mr. Ibobi's two terms as Chief Minister have provided some political stability in the State that saw seven governments between 1990 and 2002. Mr. Rio's provocative speeches are intended to break Mr. Ibobi's popularity by polarising the Meitei and Naga voters. His calculation rests on attempting to position some of the 12 NPF candidates in the Manipur Assembly, in a bid to further the demand for Greater Nagalim within the Manipur Assembly. However, the Meiteis who live in the small Manipur Valley are 60 per cent of the population. The Manipuri Nagas cohabit with Kuki tribes in four hill districts of Manipur — Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel.
The divide between hill tribes (Kuki, Naga) and the Valley people (Meitei) has been a prominent political division in Manipur. Within the hill districts, Kuki and Naga militia have been at loggerheads since the 1990s, with Kuki groups asking for the establishment of an Autonomous District Council (ADC) in Senapati, and Naga groups, backed by the NPF and the Naga Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN I-M), demanding that large chunks of the four hill districts be part of Greater Nagalim since these areas were inhabited by Tangkhul Nagas.
When the Centre decided to hold ADC elections in Manipur, the All Naga Students Association of Manipur and the Naga Students Federation began a blockade of NH-39 in April 2010 to protest the decision. In May 2010, the crisis took a bitter turn when the State government disallowed NSCN (I-M) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah from visiting his village in Ukhrul. During the four-month long blockade, Manipur was strapped for severely needed resources like petrol, LPG and basic food commodities.
As Kuki-Naga tensions worsened, the NSCN (I-M) was accused of trying to stall the democratic process in Manipur where nearly 200,000 voters would vote. A year later, in 2011, Kuki groups from Manipur started a 122-day blockade to draw attention to their demand — declare Sarda in Senapati district an autonomous district for Kukis. Both blockades crippled the State economically and losses ran to the tune of Rs. 250 crore.
The upcoming Assembly elections are of key significance because they have the potential to mainstream the demands by the NPF and the Kuki groups and bring them under the purview of political discussion conducted by elected representatives. However, Manipuri Nagas have often resisted attempts by the NSCN (I-M) to incorporate them. For the Central government, negotiating with the Naga insurgent leadership has become a standard policy, evinced by two ceasefires. With the Naga insurgency in its 65th year, Kuki groups fear that Greater Nagalim may come about sooner than expected, if only to put an end to the persistent NSCN (I-M) demand and their insurgent activities.
Regardless of the political outcome in Manipur, Mr. Rio's speech allows him to appear committed to the Nagalim cause, especially to voters in Nagaland. This will help him politically in the 2013 Assembly elections in Nagaland. For the NPF, Mr. Rio's speeches could help forge electoral coalitions that benefit the party in Manipur. However, a Congress leader has noted that Mr. Rio's efforts will only consolidate the non-Naga voters, which include the Meiteis and the Kukis. Mr. Ibobi has also expressed the doubt that Manipuri Nagas will be drawn in by Mr. Rio's rhetoric. This boomerang effect may end up favouring Mr. Ibobi and the Congress (I).
Before this, Mr. Ibobi was contesting a tough election as five Opposition parties had united under the banner of People's Democratic Front. The Front currently includes the Manipur's People Party (MPP), the Nationalist Congress Party, the CPI (M), the Janata Dal (United), and the Rashtriya Janta Dal. Mr. Rio's speech has unintentionally made Mr. Ibobi appear the one person who can effectively block the demand for Greater Nagalim.
Naga leaders have claimed that Greater Nagalim includes Naga-inhabited territories in Myanmar, China and India. Nagaland was created in 1963. Yet, in what seemed to be a politically motivated strategy to divide and disable the Naga insurgency, many Naga inhabited areas were placed in the State of Manipur when it was created in 1971. Today, Nagalim in theory comprises the Nagaland state, adjoining areas of Assam (Karbi Anglong, North Cachar), areas of Arunachal Pradesh (Tirap and Changlang), and significant parts of the hill districts of Manipur. With the NSCN (I-M) leadership in Tangkhul hands, the commitment to wrest the four Manipuri hill districts has become stronger.
So when Manipur goes to the polls on January 28, there is much for mainland Indians to pay attention to. The State has the largest number of active insurgent groups over time, 39 , operating in an area the size of Silicon Valley (8000 sq. miles). It also has an average voter turnout of 85 per cent in spite of insurgent group threats (higher than most other Indian States). Anna Hazare's hunger strike pales in comparison with that of a lone Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila, which is now in its 11th year. Her fast is against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which has been used in Manipur, almost uninterrupted, since 1980.
This election is a testing ground to assess the payoffs involved in trying to mobilise the Naga votes outside Nagaland, with Arunachal Pradesh being the NPF's next electoral target. The NPF is clearly interested in becoming a true regional player in the northeast and Mr. Rio's current campaign is part of a new history of Greater Nagalim, where the demand is articulated through an over ground party driven political process.
(Vasundhara Sirnate and Rahul Verma are Ph.D students at the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.)
Keywords: Manipur Assembly polls